The newest Roku Stick is an impressive streamer, but the cheaper Express Plus 4K is a better buy.
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Compared to the myriad streaming services they deliver, Roku's streaming TV devices seem stuck in time. The original Roku Streaming Stick Plus, a longtime CNET favorite, has gone largely unchanged since it debuted in 2017. For four years it remained an affordable, easy way to get Netflix, Amazon Video, Disney Plus, HBO Max, and the rest onto a TV in 4K.
In 2021 Roku is finally replacing the Plus with its new Streaming Stick 4K, but as with its other recent updates to products like the Roku Ultra, the upgrades are minimal. The most notable change is the addition of support for the Dolby Vision HDR format.
After using the Roku Streaming Stick 4K for the past few days I can report that it is still an excellent streamer. On the other hand, so is the cheaper Roku Express 4K Plus, which is pretty much exactly the same aside from Dolby Vision and the fact that it isn't technically a stick. In the end, most Roku buyers will be better off pocketing the $10 savings and getting the Express 4K Plus.
- Robust app and Dolby Vision support
- Simple interface
- Good search for TV and movies
- Costs $10 more than the nearly identical Express 4K Plus
- No support for gaming services
- No smart home control
- Voice assistant remains limited
Similar design, similar features
The new Streaming Stick 4K runs on Roku's latest 10.5 software and does a fine job. Apps loaded quickly, and while it didn't always feel as snappy as Amazon's new Fire TV Stick 4K Max, I never was left hanging for more than a few seconds.
Roku made some slight hardware changes to the Streaming Stick 4K. The dongle now sports a matte finish, as opposed to the glossy plastic of the Streaming Stick Plus, and the included power/Wi-Fi cable now is a bit longer and blockier. Of course, the Stick is designed to tuck behind a TV so few people will notice those tweaks. Unlike the Fire TV Max, the new Roku doesn't support Wi-Fi 6, but I don't think that's a big deal right now.
I do wish Roku had moved the Micro-USB slot for power from the side of the device to the center. Depending on your setup, you may have trouble squeezing the device into the HDMI port on your TV or other AV devices. I had some issues plugging it into a Sony soundbar, for example. Roku does offer a free HDMI extender on its website, which should help, although unlike Fire TV it doesn't include one in the box.
Roku does include a power adapter, but I also had no issues powering the device from the USB port on a 2019 TCL 6-Series TV or from a roommate's RCA TV.
TV shows and movies available in 4K and/or Dolby Vision played back with no issues on my TCL. Since that TV lacks HDR10+ support, I was unable to test that feature. As we've written in the past, while it's nice that Roku supports all of these formats, we don't consider Dolby Vision or HDR10+ a must-have, in part because it's not a major image quality upgrade over standard HDR.
Familiar, friendly menus with minor OS updates
Roku's interface remains the simplest among the major streamers, with apps displaying in a simple grid and no individual TV shows or movies appearing until you click through to the actual app. The overall feel is less cluttered than the thumbnail-heavy menus of Fire TV and Google TV, but I do miss the ability to continue watching a show directly from the home page.
With OS 10.5 Roku made a host of small improvements but nothing that rivals the addition of AirPlay support last year. Among the more notable changes is the ability to dictate passwords -- great for the times when you can't log into a streaming service from the web -- and the inclusion of podcast and music results from Spotify in voice searches.
As with rival streamers and software from Amazon, Apple, and Google, the Roku software includes all the major apps and streaming services you'd expect in 2021. This includes Netflix, Disney Plus, HBO Max, Apple TV Plus, Sling TV, and more. Game streaming services like Google Stadia and Microsoft's Xbox Cloud Gaming remain MIA, however.
Roku remains in a spat with YouTube TV, but I was still able to download the YouTube TV app from a backup of a previous Roku with no problems. Those new to Roku's software can stream YouTube TV through the main YouTube app (there is a tab labeled YouTube TV in the main app for this backdoor), or through AirPlay from an Apple device or mirroring your screen from an Android phone or Windows PC. Given the seemingly increased risk of conflicts between streaming services and software makers, I do appreciate that Roku has easy ways for Android, Apple, and Windows users to work around these disputes.
Basic voice remote included
As with other 4K Rokus, the company includes its voice remote in the box, which has a microphone for using the company's voice assistant and buttons for controlling your TV's power and volume.
One of the best uses for voice is to search, and Roku's search results for an actor, film, or TV show remain largely excellent and better than Fire TV. I particularly appreciated Roku's "Zones" that can pull content from a host of different services under themes as broad as "Western" and as narrow as "Lord of the Rings."
Roku's voice feature still has major limitations compared to Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri and Google's Assistant found on Fire TV, Apple TV, and Google TV devices, respectively. You can't control smart home devices like your lights, and even some entertainment-centric functions are limited. Roku can't handle basic tasks like asking what time a sporting event is, and its voice function doesn't integrate as well as Google TV or Fire TV into live TV streaming services. I also had some issues with getting music results in search. Asking to play The Beatles just opened up Spotify, which I guess works, too.
Music fans and audio aficionados should note that the Streaming Stick 4K still lacks Dolby Atmos support, a feature found on its rivals as well as the Roku Ultra.
Pro remote bundle available
The included voice remote is different from the $30 Roku Voice Remote Pro, which boasts a rechargeable battery and headphone jack for private listening. The Pro also has a speaker and midfield microphone so you can do hands-free commands like opening an app, playing a particular show or movie, or -- my personal favorite -- finding a misplaced controller by barking "Hey Roku, find my remote" which triggers a beeping notification.
Roku sells a bundle of the Streaming Stick 4K with the Voice Remote Pro for $70, or a $10 savings compared to getting each separately. Unfortunately, it calls that bundle the "Streaming Stick 4K Plus" which brings me to what is probably Roku's biggest issue right now: too many devices with too-similar names.
So many Rokus
Looking at the company's website, Roku's lineup of streaming players currently consists of the Express, Express 4K Plus, Streaming Stick 4K, Streaming Stick 4K Plus, Ultra, Streambar, and Streambar Pro. If you feel overwhelmed, I'm right there with you.
The fact that the Express, Express 4K Plus, and Streaming Stick 4K are all priced under $50 only makes matters worse. I'll make it simple: If you're looking for a new Roku, get the Express 4K Plus.
While the Streaming Stick 4K is an excellent device, the Express 4K Plus has nearly all the same features as the Streaming Stick 4K with the biggest exception being Dolby Vision -- which for most won't provide much value. Unless you really prefer a streaming stick design, there really isn't much of a reason to spend extra to get the Streaming Stick 4K.